Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Daney on Losey

I often use Serge Daney’s texts to learn about new films or directors which I know little about. Bizarrely, I had never seen anything by Joseph Losey. Puzzled by watching The Damned and The Boy with Green Hair on DVD, I found these texts by Daney. They are written over a period of 20 years and, despite some contradictions (Accident is rubbished in 1967 but praised in 1984), they show an amazing consistency of taste and judgement over 20 years. Daney, like Cahiers, really stuck to their line, it’s quite impressive…

These texts may also defuse a myth that the late Losey (for example the films with Harold Pinter) was unconditionally beloved by Cahiers. Serge Daney is quite specific on what can be salvaged from Losey’s films.

The four texts are:

Joseph Losey, Accident

A new variation on perversion, lies, fascination and spinelessness. We recognise Losey’s tropes and habits: gazes sometimes empty, sometimes ambiguous, often protruding, actors-mascots faithful to themselves and finally reunited (Bogarde and Baker), relations between masters and pupils, fascinating and fascinated, etc. In an English university with beautiful colours, a young professor (Bogarde) complicates his life unnecessarily. He silently loves Anna, who is courted by a young man and has already been seduced by a third one. Out of cowardice, incapable of playing a true part in this story, Bogarde slowly becomes confident, organiser, matchmaker. He thinks he is pulling the strings when he is merely subjected to events. Bogarde’s character eventually becomes fascinating because Losey’s cinema is more and more like him. A cinema whose trademark has always been the quest (both suspicion and fascination) of the Natural, spontaneity and first degree. All qualities which we must admit have abandoned Losey when he arrived in Albion (except for brilliant instants: Chance Meeting). Only the effects are left, in all their forms, from the comic book to a certain “English accent”. Watching Bogarde, we can see the workings of the alchemy, how the Natural becomes fabricated, how immediacy changes to ulterior motives, how the obvious becomes tortuous, etc. One can find all these effects unbearable or ironically moving. Accident is a vain and sophisticated film with the appearances of rigour. Each scene is articulated around a small “significant detail” joyfully highlighted by zoom shots. The overall impression is of flabbiness (with stiff moments), not to say derision.

Serge Daney, Cahiers du cinéma, issue 191, June 1967

Joseph Losey : The Go-Between

1. That The Go-Between won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival is only insignificant in appearance. If the film teaches nothing new about Joseph Losey, its success and the approving murmur around its release should prompt a few questions. For example: what is an academic film today? Or: how to tell a story in 1971 and be loved by film festivals?

2. Answering this question will only be possible once we will know a bit more about the workings of these fictions – teleological but complex – which “classic” cinema has got us used to. This endeavour, which we started here (Young Mr. Lincoln, Morocco, etc.), will need to be continued. Let’s say for the moment that in any fiction, the reason for the passage of a thing to another can very well reside in what we still call a “character”, because a “character” is a significant element with non-negligible properties: he creates relations between different locations and extras; being mobile, he sets things in movement, he gets things into gear.

3. The choice of transparency in classic Hollywood cinema, the refusal of editing (in its strict sense) as an attack on continuity (the guarantee of “truth”), forces to make the diegesis of movements – given as “realists” – rely on certain extras. “Cinema-vérité” itself has never left this necessity (see La Punition). In The Go-Between, where the camera field is constantly crowded with a bric-a-brac of realist notes and true little facts intended to prove that a social analysis is happening, Leo Colston is primarily the messenger between the front of the stage and the depth of field which is often the depth of the fields, very green, crossed diagonally and nervously.

4. Of course, not everyone can set things into gear. It is not even sure that this fiction must be always occupied with the same character (it is rather the contrary). The essential is that there is no fiction outside the mise-en-scene of a desire played – interchangeably, interminably – over scenes of sex, knowledge and money. As for the one carrying this desire, he must never have access to its promise. In any case (and the naivety of Losey’s film appears here), the messenger never understands the content of the message. Thus, the problem which the film hints at (will the child learn about sexual relations?) is a false problem. When the film starts, Leo Colston has refused a long time ago to know anything. The proof is this existence of this “other” knowledge, magical and parodic, and his step back when Ted finally decides to speak. (Nothing is more suspicious than the old Colston’s story about his childhood, a story not of the original scene but of the retrospective effect. Here’s a warning to the good souls who still think that one can soil a child’s soul.)

5. So it is rather misleadingly that Losey chooses Hartley’s novel, the story of what typically constitutes any fiction, or rather: of what is missing for the story to at least barely function, and that we propose to call the gearing function for the time being. If the reasons behind Losey’s choice are not theoretical, they are nonetheless personal and necessary, inseparable of Losey’s conception of childhood as sub-development and/or/thus mutation (The Boy with Green Hair, The Lawless, The Damned, etc.). Leo Colston has access neither to knowledge, sex or money since he is a child (and he is usable by Marian and Ted as long as he is castrated, as it is heavily underlined in the scene where he hurts his knee on a stump where an axe is planted).

6. We shouldn’t attribute only to Losey what is a more general phenomenon about the difficulties we meet today to build credible fictions. If it is difficult to bring ourselves not to tell stories anymore, it is just as unsatisfying to rely (after all, Losey has known Brecht) to the magical, resolutory, value of fictions. We can even think that no one could develop a fiction as complex and rigorous as, let’s say, Uwasa no onna (Mizoguchi) or The Leopard Man (Tourneur). Not by lack of talent but because today, a fiction (for reasons we will need to uncover) needs less to play on – and therefore conceal – the overdetermination of events. Today, everybody (except a few retarded) knows that a fiction is made neither from chance nor from innocence.

7. This is how we end up designating with a certain rage some of the mechanisms of fiction, indulgently accepted as real, like this gearing function, which is so difficult to see working in old films but becomes the very subject of The Go-Between. This murmur (even shocked, even bored) of satisfaction which accompanied films like L’Enfant sauvage, Le Souffle au coeur, Death in Venice or The Go-Between indicates that we have simply recognised that it was more profitable than ever to devise fictions where the gearing function would rest entirely on the frail shoulders of a child. (On childhood as the underlying theme and the primitive scene as countdown teleology, also see The Clowns and The Conformist).

8. The phallic-child – so small he can go anywhere, but so pure that he doesn’t understand anything – allows the audience, seeing what the child doesn’t see (such as Margaret Leighton’s glottal movement) or seeing him not seeing (or not seeing well, and therefore infinitely pitiful), to fantasise delightfully in the alternating roles of the deceiving-master and the mystified-victim. The “purity” of the child is here only as the myth allowing the return of the homosexual repressed. But where Visconti, caught in the same problem, theorizes it by relating it to the mechanism of paranoia, throwing his gaze over Venice as the master who knows he is mad, Losey, who was more lucid at the time of The Boy with Green Hair, feels obliged to attract the attention in terms of social relations toward a visual mechanism which was always designed to conceal these relations.

Serge Daney, Cahiers du cinéma, issue 231, August-September 1971

Joe Losey: 5 paradoxes

First paradox. Of all the American filmmakers who’ve had troubles (at home), Joseph Losey is the only one who has had a second career, the only one to have contradicted this unwritten rule saying that, outside the Hollywood system, the filmmakers trained for this system decline in the Old World (at our home, in Europe). If only for this, Joe Losey is important. To the point that, among those who discovered him late, he came across as an English filmmaker (the man who gave the most beautiful roles to the likes of Stanley Baker and Dirk Bogarde, an implacable painter of the English lifestyle). And from a fake English, he slowly became a true European, meaning the well-rounded-star for great cultural things: from Proust (a film he didn’t do) to Mozart (which he dongiovanised). His longevity had come – ironic history – from his status as refugee-victim from McCarthyism, and eventually got us to forget that he was an American filmmaker (from a good family), born in 1909 in Wisconsin.

Second paradox. Of all the American filmmakers rediscovered and rehabilitated by French film critics in the 1950s, he is the only one to have been rehabilitated (albeit late) by the cinephiles who were politically the furthest from him: the “MacMahonians”. Thanks to them, Losey’s American career (from The Boy with Green Hair to The Big Night, only three years from 1948 to 1951) was finally visible. These were progressive films where, in the film noir genre, a man cast a terrified gaze over racism, the violence of lynching or corruption. Purists of the mise en scene abandoned Losey (with Eva) when he stopped being a series filmmaker and became an auteur, convoluted and a tad pretentious.

Third paradox. Of all the American filmmakers who started in Hollywood in the late 1940s, Losey is one of those (but not the only one, see Nicholas Ray and Kazan) who didn’t come from the film industry but from theatre. And not from any theatre, but from the politically engaged art of the 1930s, from the avant-garde. This fascinating but too little known period of American intellectual life saw the future young filmmakers of Hollywood travelling to Moscow to meet Meyerhold, Eisenstein or Okhlopkov and coming back with their head full of ideas on the relation between stage and audience, the desire to work with Brecht or to do street theatre. The result of all these paradoxes was that Losey was never understood as a whole in his career (we’ve had to wait for Michel Ciment’s book, Conversations with Losey, 1979, before we got a less partial vision of his singular journey).

Fourth paradox. Leaning toward Marxism, obsessed with classes, their struggle and hateful relations, an analyst of power struggles between males (with their constant conflict between social class and gender), Losey took the risk to be, up to a certain point, a (leftist) well-wishing filmmaker. But his sincere progressive tendencies led him to find an interest in a more volatile and less easy subject: servitude (involuntary, then voluntary). Singing future utopias interested him less than the stagnating present, trapped in decors full of resentment and humiliation. For human drives are not necessarily progressive. “At the base (correctly writes Deleuze, in the Movement-Image), there is the drive, which by its very nature is too strong for the character, whatever its character”. So much so that Losey’s cinema is primarily a surprising gallery of “fake weak” and “fake strong” characters, caught in the well-known scenario – scripted by Hegel – of the master and slave dialectic.

Fifth paradox. Right-wing fans of the Hollywood Losey admired in him the expression of a certain violence. Not a shiny violence, but a murderous one: Lang’s violence, without the rigour, the violence of a moralist. But a moralist is by definition someone who is less interested in his characters’ actions than in their acts. If the term “action movie” best defines the greatness of American cinema, the catalogues of acts are the strength of European (auteurist) cinema. And Losey, not by chance, oscillated between the two, belonged to the two worlds. “Violence in act, before entering in action” also writes Deleuze. “Static” violence, he adds. And even: “trembling”. There has been some “trembling” with Losey, for example in the way his very catholic career has a logic, and in the way he drops his actors like neurasthenic predators in the over-signifying shackles of a mise en scene inherited from the politically engaged theatre of his beginnings. Some of the trembling was complacent, flabby, senile or academic (let’s move on) but some of the trembling was exact, overwhelming, seismographic (The Boy with Green Hair, The Lawless, The Gipsy and the Gentleman, The Damned, Accident, Mr Klein). Thus goes the human carcass.

Serge Daney, Libération, 23 and 24 June 1984

The small fin: Joseph Losey, La Truite

One shall be wary of social phenomenon films: they are rarely good and age badly. On shall be wary of the sociological gaze, the one that stays when nothing is left of the film. One shall be wary of Roger Vailland’s “cold gaze” because the only coldness worth of attention in cinema is the one that burns. Watching La Truite, the 1960 Liaisons dangereuses came back to my mind. The 1960 version, signed by Vadim, with the late Gerard Philipe and (already) Jeanne Moreau, and adapted in balck and white for the screen by Roger Vailland himself. At the time, the gaze of the ex-Stalinist dandy over Laclos’ heretical world had the bitter taste of scandal, although quickly gone. A few years later, Vailland published La Truite, and a few years later, Joseph Losey, now a European, dreamt to make a film of it. In 1982, Gaumont granted him his wish.

Whatever (some will say), the subject is eternal. In La Truite, one can see that money and sex are running the world and that the only “moral” consists in never forgetting it. Otherwise, it’s the vulgarity of the feeling (ugh!) or the catastrophe of the passions: Vailland cast his cold gaze over all this. Today, no doubt, he would cast his gaze on the adventure-seeking and dubious neo-bourgeoisie, setting up deals between Paris and Tokyo, with its sexual parades, its nouveau-rich culture and the soft pleasure of a vulgar and international “art de vivre”. Fine. But if the subject is eternal, the film isn’t. A film is always “at present”, always an indirect documentary on the desire which has produced the film. And for La Truite, this desire mustn’t have been very strong since the fishes, small and big, fooling and fooled, smart and only half-smart, who are playing the extras in this tragic fish tank, are not interesting. And that’s a problem.

Never mind (some will reply): we don’t care about this mediocre and rather rotten world, what matters is the gaze cast over it, Losey’s. And here there are two possibilities. Either the author loves his characters despite their faults and he endears us to them, one by one, round about a shot, a gesture, a nothing. Or he doesn’t really like his characters, less in any case than the social mechanism that they represent, which surpasses them and crushes them. For they are all Don Giovannis with small feet and small fins.

But this oscillation is typical of Losey. There are two Loseys. The Losey who believed in the heaven of ant-racism and American progressive tendencies (first period, before McCarthy, with beautiful films like The Boy with Green Hair). And there is the Losey who believed in Marxist sociology, in the unfolding of class contradictions, in Brecht which he staged. The Losey who, in this old master-and-slave story, preferred the dialectic to its elements. He sometimes managed it (Accident, Mr Klein) but generally he weighed everything down, confusing complication and complexity, overlaying to his mise en scene a permanent “don’t be fooled, follow my gaze” giving simple minds the feeling to understand everything there is to know about class struggle.

So, which Losey filmed La Truite? An old man who didn’t chose. The “trout” is perhaps, in the book, a cold and vicious heroin, doubled with an ex-little girl who has forgotten nothing of the “stupidity of the country life”, but the film so clumsily (it’s a scandal) multiplies explanatory flashbacks that, in the end, all is left is a vixen pulling the strings of an ordinary plot. In brief, the “trout” is not J.R.. We can’t really hate her. She’s not an absolute, just a headline act.

The game of anti-bourgeois massacre is a difficult one. Without true hate, one better be judge and jury, both bourgeois and appalled by the stupidity of bourgeoisie, dazed little fish and distant fishbowl.

Losey looks at this small world, this modern fish tank, with a slightly indifferent tenderness. He continues to pretend undoing the terribly tangled web of the plot, even though it is no more important than mishmash. He can’t help it if Huppert is only good when she avoids comedy (the two little scenes with Alexis Smith – the red-dressed lady of the Tokyo Hotel, fantastic – are excruciating), if Olbrychski badly dubbed looks pale, if Lisette Malidor is better than her ethical act, if Moreau only has one real scene to play (she dies of it), if between the film poster and its flat reality, a thousand things complicate everything with no gain for anyone.

La Truite is therefore a vain film. We simply get tired following the plot: everything lacks, the stakes are vague, details are absent, one forgot to film too many things. Great filmmakers, when they grow old, should have gained the privilege of painters: to film what they want and who they love. Only. When Losey films bowling or a Japanese taxi, we dream about the simple and pleasant film which he could have pulled off from the simple exhibition of the cast amidst beautiful sets, in Ginza or in the French countryside. Enshroud in Alekan’s truly magnificent light, they would have looked beautiful.

Of course, it wouldn’t last two hours, not even one. To film successful people doesn’t mean you succeed in making a film out of it. That’s moral.

Serge Daney, Libération, 22 September 1983


  1. Thanks for the translations. I think Daney's wrong, La Truite is a great film. I wonder if there's a connection here to his dislike of Altman (which I also disagree with him on), and his (insightful) opinion that the tracking shot impels desire while the zoom spreads phobia?

  2. I must confess that I've not seen La Truite. So I can't really say. What's sure is that, running through these texts, is Daney's very strong dislike of "well-meaning left-wing fictions" (Costa Gavras and co). And Losey seems falling prey of this. Daney is just not going to like his late, less radical, work.

    PS: I'm really worried when translating a review of a film I've not seen: I may not get it right. I hope these ones pass the test. They were trickier texts than I thought.

  3. I've seen all of the films under discussion, and your translation (I've also read the piece on "The Go-Between in French), seems to get it right. I have only the usual minor quibbles, e. g., would what you translate as "well-wishing" be better rendered as "well-meaning"?

  4. Hi Bill, the French expression "bien pensant" can be translated both as "well intentioned" (literally) or "self-righteous" (ironically). Both are correct and I suspect Daney meant a bit of both.